Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Letter To My Father, Thomas Francis Quinlan, 1913-1993


Dear Dad,

I suppose it is about time that I wrote to you. The last time I remember writing to you was when you were in the USA visiting your first cousin John and his wife Nancy in San Francisco in 1971. I remember how proud you were when you had shown John my letter. I was only 13 years of age at the time and in first year secondary. I remember that I had made a great effort in this task – I always loved playing with words. I cannot for all the tea in China remember what I said. What does a 13 year old say to his father? I have quite forgotten at 49 years of age. This seems like hundreds of years ago lost in the fogs and mists of time.

Also I regret to say that I don’t get out too often to see your grave. This I regret as I say, and promise to make up for my being so remiss. The last time I got to see the grave you so typically picked for your last resting place was about a month or so ago when I visited the grave of one of my pupils who died through the misadventure of choking on his own vomit after a cocktail of drink and drugs. Poor young Scott, whom I always called “Great Scott,” was only 17 and is not buried too far from your good self. However, I did get to stop and look at your gravestone. Pat and Ger have put a lot of work into your grave and recently put four or five bags of compost on it, and the “Deora Dé” or Fuchsia is still alive and actually blooming. You always loved this beautiful plant. When I told you what the Irish for Fuchsia meant – “God’s tears” – you were intrigued and delighted. Not that your Irish was very good, you know. I remember once when I was about ten asking you to spell “teilifís” for me and you spelled it “telefish.” Needless to say the teacher put a line under the second syllable when he had corrected my exercise. I remember laughing to myself and saying that I’d never ask you to spell any Irish words again. Amazing how I ended up teaching Irish, is it not?

Now as I age I begin to appreciate how good you were to us, your sons, and to your wife. However, you were a man of your era. You might never have expressed in words your love for us – that was not what was done all those years ago, by an older man like yourself. Actions though always spoke louder than words. You were 40 when you got married – quite late, though not unusual for a countryman born in 1913. Those were lean and hungry years in Ireland. Neither did your family have things easy.

I remember reading the actual form completed by my great-grandfather in the 1911 census from Carrick, Roscrea, Tipperary North Riding where you were born in October 1913. The Quinlans had a small field a little over an acre in size, a couple of cows, some pigs and a garden. They literally eked out a subsistence living. Who in Ireland did not at that time? In the house at the time there were four occupants: my great-grandfather Patrick, his wife whose name I forget, their son my grandfather or your father, Thomas and his young wife Johanna. I saw that great-grandfather Patrick was illiterate and signed the form with an X. However, Thomas and his wife were both literate, his trade being noted as tailor and he listed as being able to read and write both English and Irish.

Into this house three boys were born, your late brother Patrick who died in 1970, twin boys James (died New Zealand, 1981) and your good self Thomas who departed this world in 1993. These boys were to know much hardship in their lives. Your dad died from T.B. in 1925 when you were only 12 years old. I remember your often telling me about how you knelt by his deathbed and how he had a full head of black hair and that he was barely 40 years of age. You always had tears in your eyes when you recounted this story. Things were just beginning to take off for the Quinlans when this same Thomas tragically died. He had started a tailor business with another colleague and they were doing well. Then you were all plunged into poverty because there were no insurances of any substance in place. My grandmother Johanna Meagher had to go out and clean for a living – a charwoman in the local hospital.

I often wonder how you got the courage to go on, especially when your cousin John told me that it was you who kept everything going. Your twin James was taken away from you at the time of your dad’s death. This must have been hard for a sensitive soul like you, dad. James was sent to Wicklow to a sister of your mother who had married fairly well there and was brought up away from the more extreme poverty you knew. He was to do well for himself and became a Second Lieutenant in the British Navy who saw action in the Second World War and sent you loads of tea during the black years of the Emergency. I was always amused by James, whom you called Jimmy (he preferred James) who spoke with an English, almost Oxford, accent. You both made such an odd couple with absolutely nothing in common, you with your country peasant accent and ways and your twin with that mask of sophistication. He had even met the present Prince Phillip, Elizabeth II’s husband in the Royal Navy, or at least so he said. I always figured you could never believe James. He was always more English than Irish.

Then the story of how you looked after your elder brother Paddy who always had an alcohol problem touches me deeply. You never told me that you had even washed Paddy’s clothes for him when needed. You were always the quiet loyal one. My respect for you grows so much as I get older. How I wish now that I had sat down with you more often and had asked you all those questions about our family. However, I was too young then to be much bothered. I suppose such sentiments only come as we age and wish to know who we are and where we came from. I remember how you always referred to Uncle Pat as “poor Paddy.” You never condemned him or wrote Paddy off as did your twin who had absolutely no time for Uncle Pat, the waster, if I may use a modern phrase which you may not be familiar with. It means wastrel in your language. I remember your telling me how Paddy had been sent up to his Uncle Ger Meagher, granny’s brother who had an undertaker’s business and who was quite successful in the world. I believe this business is thriving still and that there are many successful Meaghers from this branch of your family today. You always told me that Paddy took to the whiskey when he had to lay out and coffin the dead. After all Paddy was only 13 years of age when his father died! I believe he was shortly thereafter articled to Ger Meagher as an apprentice coffin maker. In fact Paddy was a skilled carpenter, coffin and cabinet maker, and also a marvellously skilled wheelwright – a difficult and very skilled job. Poor Paddy lived a lonely hard life and died of cancer brought on by his alcoholism in 1970. You told us his final words in hospital were: “Jaysus, Tommy, I’m fucked!” He died shortly afterwards. How we laughed at Paddy’s typically realistic words. He was a great, simple and unsophisticated man like your good self. You dad were the carer always. You, Tommy Quinlan, were the loyal one always, loyal to your mother Johanna whom you also cared for when she died in 1948 aged some 68 years, loyal to Paddy, even loyal to your sophisticated odd-ball intellectual twin James.

The gods were smiling on your loyalty, Dad. Someone who was a repository of such deep, noble and loyal love would never be deserted. Nor were you. I have always believed in “karma” – the laws of cause and effect – as you live you shall die. You would not be familiar with this term. All it means is do good and good will return to you. You subscribed to this; you subscribed to the karmic concept though you did not know it. Do good and think positive and you will learn to turn all things into good and positive things. Do evil and think negative and you will turn all things into evil and negative things. When I last spoke with you on these topics in relationship to another branch of the family, another set of your first cousins, we spoke of how they would die miserable deaths because they had been so bad to their own mother, allowing her to die a lonely miserable death in virtual poverty.

How you met my mother, Mary Brophy, I simply don’t know. You nor she ever spoke about how you met. It was a great, simple and practical love. You were married in 1953 when you were 40 and she 35/6 or thereabouts. It was a late but a brilliantly loyal love. It is only now that I realise how blessed a love it was. Yes, it did have its tough times, its miserable times, its poor times, its desperate times, but how much greater were the great times, the brilliant times, the happy times, the funny times, the simple times and the loyal loving quiet moments only you could create, dad. How much I love you I cannot write in these lines. The tears are welling up in my eyes as I type these wretched ciphers on this page. I regret now that I had never told you how much I really loved and respected you.

You were always an easy-going, happy man, always the first to put his hand in his pocket and order the first drinks. My uncles on Mam’s side related to us how you always insisted on being the first to buy a drink wherever you were. You always were a typical Gael in that respect, always generous and welcoming to a fault. You always had all those old phrases and sayings, garnered from years of working with wise people like yourself. You had attended school until you were 13 years old and after that you knew only work and more work. However, dad, you were really well educated. How I remember your always saying to me: “I may not have been long at school, but I met the scholars”. Simple man, good man, lovely man, loyal man, man of the people, simple and wise and so well educated in the true sense of that word. You always taught me that real education was not in degrees achieved but rather in the way we treated and respected others. I have never forgotten that lesson. I have acquired a good few degrees and diplomas, Dad, but I count them as chaff in the wind to the lessons I learned at your knee. Today we have a lot of so-called well-educated people, but alas and alack many of them aren’t really educated in the true sense, in your sense . All one can say is that they are well-schooled or well-colleged, if I may coin a neologism, but certainly not truly educated as in the good and simple things in life like respect for every single human being. Thanks for the lesson. It was so well taught by example. I hope I have learned it well. I try to teach the boys at school these simple truths that I learned from you. Thanks again.

Forgive me for the times I caused you worry and anxiety, for the times I fought with you, for the times we argued senselessly and needlessly. Forgive me for not understanding how hard life had been for you. How hard it must have been for you with three young boys, Gerard, Patrick and me when you got polio in 1960 at the age of 47. You lost the use of your right arm – luckily the polio did not spread to your legs or anywhere else like it did for the wife of the broadcaster Bunny Carr. She ended up totally invalided in an iron lung. You were doing so well as a country postman, about to be one of the first to learn to drive for the new postal deliveries in Roscrea. Instead you had to spend months inn Cappagh Hospital here in Dublin, away from your family in Tipperary. Eventually you were sent to Sherriff Street, Central Delivery Centre, Dublin and were giving the “lovely” job of gateman, called euphemistically “patrol officer.” How you must have hated this job. Yet you never complained to mam or to us. You had to work to put bread on the table. How you must have missed all your country friends, and even all those lovely people you knew from your postal delivery around Knock. You used to spend ages talking to them all and bringing them little messages from various shops etc. You were a countryman, a peasant in its real and deep sense, a man of the people, who needed others to talk to, to cheer up, to comfort and to joke with. To be forced to come to Dublin in the early sixties and to have to end up in Ballybough, literally and actually “poor town” must have been an awful weight to carry. Still you never complained. Life had to be lived, to be got on with, that’s all.

Ah Dad, if only you were around so I could tell you these things. If only you were here to listen. If only you were here to tell me stories. I always loved stories like you did. We are very similar in this. Patrick is very like you dad. In fact he is turning into you day by day. He has all of your gestures and mannerisms. When I meet him for a drink it’s like I was again with you. Strange, no? Then again, maybe it’s not – after all he is your son, too.

It is time now for me to bring this rather meandering missive to some conclusion. I will never forget you dad. I need you more and more as I get older to give me the courage to go on. I promise I’ll visit your resting place more often from this on. I will never forget the time you died, dad. I hope I’ll do it as gracefully as you. What a beautiful and simple and magical death you had – all that you would have wanted and all that you deserved, loyal man, simple man, beautiful human being, one of the nicest I have ever met on this planet. The young nurse who was with you in your final minutes was in floods of tears – it was her first professional death. She told us how you looked in the direction of the window and how you had remarked, “It’s such a beautiful day.” Only a few days previously you had kissed us all, Mam, Ger, Pat and me on the lips and had said, “I love you all, I love you all!” I and my brothers were privileged to have known and loved you; were doubly privileged to have been known and loved by you; were triply privileged to be called your sons. May you rest in peace, simple man, good man, lovely human being. Once again, Dad, I’ll finish with my favourite words from Shakespeare from the mouth of Miranda, “O brave new world that has such people in it!”

I remain,
Your loyal and loving son,

P.S. How we all miss you. Keep smiling in the angel world!

Above I have a pasted a picture of my father with my brother Gerard and me sometime around 1960 before Dad got polio.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons

I have, for next post, taken the example of Richard P. Feynman in writing a letter. I’ll write it to my father, Thomas F. Quinlan (1913-1993). However, before then I want to write something about the thorny and contentious matter of father-son relationships.

There has been much written on the topic of father-son or son-father relationships, not least since the advent of psychoanalysis and the great work done by Sigmund Freud in this area. Some years back I read a book on the subject called Reclaiming Father: The Search for Wholeness in Men, Women and Children (Soul Connections, 2004) by the renowned Jungian psychoanalytical psychotherapist Dr Benig Mauger. There have been legions of other books on this topical matter. Some posts previously I have written reviews of novels on childhood and growing up, novels which have always moved and amused me, and needless to say, they deal in no small way with this age-old problem of the relationship between fathers and sons.

In my reading I have always looked out for this gripping topic. When reading Richard Holmes’s two-volume biography of S.T. Coleridge [The first volume is called Coleridge: Early Visions (1989) and the second is called Coleridge: Darker Reflections (1998) I took note of the influence of Samuel Taylor’s father on his son in these marvellous books. At night the elder Coleridge used to bring his young son out on walks in the country and show him the mysterious expanse of the night skies. Samuel Taylor was to call this experience most significant for him, because in his own beautiful words: “my mind had thus become habituated to the vast.” Would were it so for us all! Magari! Alas and alack!

And, then, I have always loved the writings of Blake Morrison, a contemporary novelist, great journalist and equally laudable critic of poetry and literature. How, I envy this man’s breadth of literary achievement and the depth and honesty of his more autobiographical work especially these two books: - (i) And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993), an honest and moving account of his father's life and death. It won the J. R. Ackerley Prize and was made into a film in 2007, starring Colin Firth, and more lately (ii) his new book, Things My Mother Never Told Me, a memoir of his mother, was published in 2002. I have read the first of these two, but the second remains on my shelves, somewhere, yet to be read.

Obviously with a title like “fathers and sons” for this present entry how can I fail to mention the famous book by the Russian novelist Turgenev with the exact title of this present entry? Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev was written in 1862 and graces my bookshelf but alas again it remains unread. Again I bought it for the title as it’s a theme I’m addicted to in the best sense of that term.

Anyway, one of the four or five books I have going at present is the collected letters of the famous 20th century physicist Richard P. Feynman. I have already sung its praises in the last, and at the beginning of today’s blog. However, I want to finish it with an appropriate quote from Dick Feynman on his own father. I think and feel that these few words are marvelous and they inspire me to write a letter to my own late father.

In answer to a book company representative who wanted some autobiographical information about Feynman, the man, Richard P. replied: “You also wanted a few lines on how I was attracted to science: My father, a business man, had a great interest in science. He told me fascinating things about the stars, numbers, electricity etc. Wherever we went there were always new wonders to hear about; the mountains, the forests, the sea. Before I could talk he was already interesting me in mathematical designs made with blocks. So I have always been a scientist. I have always enjoyed it, and I thank him for this great gift to me.” (Don’t You Have Time To Think? p. 122)

And so my next post will be a letter to my father, doubly inspired by Dick Feynman: (i) he had written a letter to his dead wife and (ii) he had a lovely relationship with his father.

Forgive me, if readers there are out there of this post, for the rambling nature of these thoughts, but I do feel there is at least a thread of the logic of both mind and heart within!

The picture above is one of me and my late father doing a bit of gardening work. My father loved the garden, though he had lost the use of his right arm to polio at the age of 40. You can see this affliction in this photo. However, it did not curb his interest in the garden, only made it a little harder.

Monday, July 09, 2007

A Great Mind and A Great Soul

Letters From The Soul

I have long had an interest in letters and in letter writing, that is, some while before the advent of the internet, or rather some time before general access to its use here in Ireland. Since then I have written very few personal letters which is a pity indeed. Letter writing is a dying art since the advent of mobile phones, texting and indeed email. Ease of access to another human is momentary almost now. However, I would question in how far real communication has improved using these modern methods. Sitting down to physically write a letter was an art and a craft in itself – indeed a hugely symbolic act or ritual. Indeed, a love letter was, and still is, for those who write them and for those who receive them, an action of the heart or of the soul, both of which terms I use interchangeably here. These thoughts were occasioned by my reading of Richard P. Feynman’s beautiful collection of letters which cover the greater part of his 70 years of life (1918-1988). This book is called Don’t You Have Time To Think? It is edited by his adopted daughter Michelle and published by Penguin Books, 2006. It is a labour of love for Michelle and the personality of her father sings clear and true throughout this wonderful book. There are other wonderful books of letters, one of my favourite would be the collected letters of the young Romantic poet John Keats who died at the early age of 24. However, that latter book is for a review at a later stage in these blog entries.

Some months before his first wife Arline died of TB on June 16, 1945, the young Feynman (only 27 years old at the time) wrote the following lovely words. I shall quote briefly from a few different letters to show the absolute depths of love Richard had for Arline. I loved these sincere and carefully expressed words:

• “I love you. You are a strong and beautiful woman. You are not always as strong as at other times but it rises and falls like the flow of a mountain stream. I feel I am a reservoir for your strength – without you I would be empty and weak like I was before I knew you – but your moments of strength make me strong and thus I am able to comfort you with your own strength when your stream is low.” (April 3rd, 1945) (p. 48)
• “I’ll come and give you strength this afternoon.” (April 21st, 1945) (p. 51)
• “I love you, little Putzie. Drink a glass of Milk.” (same letter) (p.52)
• “You are a nice girl. Every time I think about you, I feel good. It must be love. It is love. I love you.” (April 25th, 1945) (p. 54)
• “Nothing is certain. We lead a charmed life. I love you, sweetheart.” (May 3rd, 1945) (p. 55)
• “I adore a great and patient woman. Forgive me for my slowness to understand. I am your husband. I love you.” (June 6th, 1945) (p. 65) Ten days later Arline died.

What hits home to me is not alone had R.P. Feynman such a beautiful and wonderful mind, but that also he was blessed with a beautiful and wonderful soul. It’s not often that the two go together in any one human being, but in Feynman they interwove in a seamless garment – if I may be forgiven for overstretching the metaphor.

Another interesting fact, though totally understandable, is that Richard had not gotten over the death of his beautiful wife for a good number of years. In this marvellous collection of letters we find him writing a letter dated October 17th, 1946 to his wife Arline. Remember that she had been dead for over a year at this stage. What interests me here is that this action of writing a letter to a dead friend or relative has been recently advised by counsellors working in the area of grief. Here we have Feynman doing this automatically as it were. To write a letter to a dead friend or relative is a really healing action. His daughter notes that this letter was well worn given the appearance of being reread often. Here is a brief quote from this wonderfully healing letter:

• “I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead – but I still want to comfort and take care of you – and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you – I want to do little projects with you…You dead are so much better than anyone else alive…My darling wife, I do adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead.” (pp 68-69)

And so, friends, there is soul work as well as mind work. I’m not so sure the great physicist and mathematician, Richard Feynman, would use these terms. I don’t know if he was aware of Right Brain and Left Brain theories of how our personalities work. He was not a religious man. He strikes me as being more agnostic than atheistic. The answer to this latter question will have to remain until I have read further into this wonderful little uplifting book. Anyway, the answer to this question is inconsequential really. Suffice it to say that within these covers of this small book we get to meet a really deep and spiritual (in the widest sense of the use of that term) human being. And with the Bard of Avon we feel like singing in the words of Miranda: “O brave new world that has such people in it!”

Above is a picture of Richard P Feynman (1918-1988)